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Mind Over Matter in the Mountains

By Samantha Mythen
Nigel and his son Logan

Nigel Winter, from Invercargill New Zealand, is not just a typical father.

He’s a father who absolutely loves getting outdoors, finding peace and solace in the simple act of moving in the mountains. 

And he’s sharing this passion with his son, Logan. 

Logan is 25 years old.

He loves to joke around, spending his days giggling and laughing.

He also has Down Syndrome, autism, dyspraxia, other intellectual disabilities and he is non-communicative. 

‍Together, Logan and Nigel have a goal.

‍They’re going to complete the Hooker Valley track together.

Nigel and his son Logan

The beginning.

In September 1997, when Logan was born, Nigel’s life changed dramatically.

“The last 20 years have seen me facing challenges and battles raising Logan predominantly on my own and the impacts this has had on me are massive,” he said. Over that time, Nigel went through ten different jobs, two relationship breakups, and three years alone, two houses purchased and then sold.

He moved three times, all hoping to find a good work-life balance and pave a sound pathway for Logan. Alongside this, he has fought constant exhaustion, battled alcohol addiction, and resisted depression and other mental health issues.

Logan has always kept him going. One foot in front of the other.

“You don’t have a choice with Logan. I have to step up and help him. I’m his Dad. I’m all he’s got. That’s what keeps me going and battling on, no matter what obstacles I face. That smile from his achievements, seeing him enjoying life, that’s what gets me out of bed,” he said.

It’s a necessary lifetime commitment to always provide for Logan’s needs.

Nigel was biking along the Otago Rail Trail one day and happened to meet a female with Down Syndrome and her support worker. They got yarning and Nigel shared his concerns for Logan’s future and what would be available for him. “I was talking to them for five minutes, but boy did those five minutes change the direction of our lives,” he said.

The pair told Nigel about Living Options, an assisted living service provider. Logan now lives there full-time in a flat with three other flatmates, attending a day base where he takes part in different activities to help lead a fulfilling life.

Mindfulness in the mountains.

Along this journey with Logan, Nigel stumbled upon a group that introduced him to tramping in the great outdoors. The simple activity of putting one foot in front of the other, admiring the views that each bend in the track reveals, profoundly changed Nigel’s perspective on life.

It gave him the strength not to give up when faced with daily challenges. It gives him the courage to keep pursuing even more adventures.

“These are the times I finally feel alive and invigorated. I am able to take time away for myself from the fast-paced and bureaucratically blocked life of fighting on a daily basis for what Logan is entitled to and deserves for the best life possible,” he said. “Nothing beats the mindfulness of standing on top of a mountain or of tramping through the bush for a few days to find peace and solitude.”

When Nigel goes out tramping, the lack of cellphone coverage or internet means he has no choice but to switch off and enjoy his surroundings. The benefits of this are immense. 

“Getting away from people and noise and clutter is a good chance to recharge your batteries and reset your mindset. You can think clearly without interruptions,” he said. 

Inclusivity and community.

Alongside hiking, Nigel has been a keen runner and mountain bike rider, and wherever possible, he gets Logan involved. “Right when Logan was young, inclusion was important,” said Nigel. “Making sure he always had the opportunity to participate in community events and gatherings was a priority to me.”

Together, Nigel and Logan have taken part in City to Surf events, where Logan rides his trike. 

“Even if it was only the 4km walk part of the event, seeing the joy on his face from the encouragement and support of the other athletes and participants was evident,” said Nigel. “These times were the few where I really felt people accepted him for who he is.”

Nigel wants people to see that getting into the outdoors isn’t just an activity reserved only for the wealthy, young or athletic. The nature of Logan’s disabilities means he tires easily and they’re usually the last ones to finish.

“But that’s cool. He might not be the fastest competitor there but he’s out there and he’s participating, he’s having a great time and finding his place in the community. We don’t want to hide people with disabilities away, we want to show them that they are as much a part of and have a right to be a part of the community as everybody else,” said Nigel.

Logan is hard to read. 

But Nigel tells me, he always has a big smile when they’re out walking. 

“When people stop and say g’day, he enjoys those interactions,” said Nigel. “In the outdoors, people always stop to say hello and chat with Logan, whereas most days in the city, you’re quite insignificant, people just pass him by.”

A mighty goal‍

Late last year, Nigel was brainstorming some life goals for Logan. He’s always encouraging people to walk the Hooker Valley. It’s one of Nigel’s favourite areas in New Zealand. “Even if you only do one hike in your life, the Hooker Valley is the one to do,” he tells people.

And so he thought to himself, why not aim to show Logan the hike too?

“The scenery is spectacular and, while this is only a 12km walk meant to take around three hours return, it will be a massive undertaking for Logan. It will likely mean he’s walking for six hours on his own feet!” he said.

“I’ve always pushed Logan to aspire to do his best and he will be seeing the scenery and experiencing a region even a lot of able-bodied people I know won’t ever have the motivation to go out and do,” he said. 

It’s a huge goal for Logan, and he’s started his training alongside a very supportive service provider, and an old-school friend called Daniel. “Daniel is key to bringing out the best in Logan and pushing him to do his best in anything,” Nigel said. “Friends like him are rare indeed.”

True friendship is something Nigel would like to acknowledge.

“One thing I discovered for those of us experiencing mental health issues, outside of our loving and caring partners, wives, and close family members, who are the pillars of support during our struggles, is the value of true friends…and in that, I mean true friends!”

“We all have “friends” but if we take the time to really think about it, most of us can count the number of true friends we have on one hand.”

One of Nigel’s closest friends is Lindsay, someone who he considered “a rough diamond” upon first meeting. “We both had travelled a common journey and as such he was the one person who stood out and understood my hardships and more importantly, helped keep me grounded and kept life in perspective for me,” he said.

Lindsay and his partner Vanessa are always there for Nigel, whether it’s offering a smile, some advice, or even just a beer and a chuckle. Merrell NZ has also stepped up to help.

When bringing up a child with disabilities such as Logan’s, Nigel said finances are often strained and funding is limited.  “Budgets are always tight when you’re supporting an adult with a full-time disability and the funding is not there,” he said. Nigel decided to reach out to Merrell to ask for some help.

“Worst-case scenario they’d say no, best case scenario we will get $50 off a pair of hiking shoes,” he said. “Then a $1500 package ended up on our doorstep.”

This was incredibly humbling for Nigel.

“To see a company and more importantly the individuals within it take interest and put aside their own busy schedules to make time and reach out to support and encourage those in the community less fortunate is something we as parents in these circles rarely encounter! And for that, we are truly grateful,” he said.

“It was so refreshing to deal with a company that had taken an interest in Logan and his journey. All too often, people will talk the talk but they won’t walk the walk, especially when it comes to lives with disabilities.” 

In Nigel’s life, he faces obstacles every day when trying to help Logan live his life with as much autonomy as possible.

"These days, people and organisations are so unobtainable. Everything is so impersonal and automated. We’ve just become so focused on where we’re going on our own achievements, we’re overlooking common human decency and taking the time out to help someone that’s struggling,” he said. 

“I’ve seen people struggling to cross the road and there are all these people hurtling past, no one stops to take that person’s arm and guide them across or even just ask if they’re alright.” Merrel gives him hope for a wider change within the disability support community.

Every few years, Nigel has an interview with Accessibility New Zealand, to discuss how Logan is tracking. There is a set form they must fill out to draw conclusions and there’s only an hour for the interview.

Nigel would like them to put the paperwork aside. 

Sit down for two to three hours.

Make the parent a cup of tea and ask them about how their day is going.

And listen.

One step in front of the other

With the media attention and interest from an online tramping community, Nigel is feeling the pressure. But with Logan, “it is what it is.”

And perhaps, that’s an inspiration in itself. It doesn’t always matter whether you reach the goal, so long as you have the goal and you try your best to reach it. 

At the end of the day, we all feel so much pressure to achieve the thing. But a lot of the time, the process, the journey, the stepping forward each day to reach the thing, offers the best life lessons. “Life is not easy for those of us with a family member with a disability. And I’m probably one of the lucky ones. Logan can still run and walk and laugh and play; there are a lot more people much worse,” he said.

This goal is about providing a sense of achievement for Logan.  Right now, the father and son duo are putting in the training days - aiming to attempt the track in October. Nigel hopes that Logan’s goal with motivate and inspire others.

“If you’re having a bad day, things ARE achievable and you can work through them. There are options to get out there and enjoy life. Sometimes you have to switch off, make time for yourself and go for a walk.”